Today marks the 100th anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution. If there’s anything to celebrate, it’s that Communism was tried, it failed, and as a result it is no longer viable as a global secular religion. Unfortunately, the cost of the experiment in human lives was far greater than that of any comparable revolutionary ideology before or since. It’s not as if we weren’t warned. As I noted in an earlier post, Herbert Spencer was probably the most accurate prophet of all. In his A Plea for Liberty he wrote,
Already on the continent, where governmental organizations are more elaborate and coercive than here, there are chronic complaints of the tyranny of bureaucracies – the hauteur and brutality of their members. What will these become when not only the more public actions of citizens are controlled, but there is added this far more extensive control of all their respective daily duties? What will happen when the various divisions of this vast army of officials, united by interests common to officialism – the interest of the regulators versus those of the regulated – have at their command whatever force is needful to suppress insubordination and act as ‘saviors of society’? Where will be the actual diggers and miners and smelters and weavers, when those who order and superintend, everywhere arranged class above class, have come, after some generations, to intermarry with those of kindred grades, under feelings such as are operative under existing classes; and when there have been so produced a series of castes rising in superiority; and when all these, having everything in their own power, have arranged modes of living for their own advantage: eventually forming a new aristocracy far more elaborate and better organized than the old?
What will result from their (the bureaucracy’s) operation when they are relieved from all restraints?…The fanatical adherents of a social theory are capable of taking any measures, no matter how extreme, for carrying out their views: holding, like the merciless priesthoods of past times, that the end justifies the means. And when a general socialistic organization has been established, the vast, ramified, and consolidated body of those who direct its activities, using without check whatever coercion seems to them needful in the interests of the system (which will practically become their own interests) will have no hesitation in imposing their rigorous rule over the entire lives of the actual workers; until eventually, there is developed an official oligarchy, with its various grades, exercising a tyranny more gigantic and more terrible than any which the world has seen.
The transformation of the Party apparatus into a privileged monopoly (new class, nomenklatura) existed in embryonic form in Lenin’s prerevolutionary book Professional Revolutionaries, and in his time was already well under way. It is just this which has been the major reason for the decay of communism… Thus he, Stalin, the greatest Communist – for so everyone thought him save the dogmatic purists and naive “quintessentialists” – the incarnation of the real essence, the real possibilities, of the ideal – this greatest of all Communists, killed off more Communists than did all the opponents of Communism taken together, worldwide… Ideology exterminates its true believers.
The biggest danger we face in the aftermath of Communism is that the lesson will be forgotten. It was spawned on the left of the ideological spectrum, and today’s leftists would prefer that the monster they created be forgotten. Since they control the present, in the form of the schools, they also control the past, according to the dictum set forth by George Orwell in his 1984. As a result, today’s students hear virtually nothing about the horrors of Communism. Instead, they are fed a bowdlerized “history,” according to which nothing of any significance has ever happened in the United States except the oppression and victimization of assorted racial and other minority groups. No matter that, by any rational standard, the rise of the United States has been the greatest boon to “human flourishing” in the last 500 years. No matter that Communism would almost certainly have spread its grip a great deal further and lasted a great deal longer if the US had never existed. The Left must be spared embarrassment. Therefore, the US is portrayed as the “villain,” and Communism has been dropped down the memory hole.
Indeed, if Bernie Sanders recent bid for the Presidency, sadly sabotaged by the Clinton machine via the DNC, is any indication, socialism, if not Communism, is still alive and well. Of course, anyone with even a passing knowledge of history knows that socialism has been tried in a virtually infinite array of guises, from the “hard” versions that resulted in the decapitation of Cambodia and the Soviet Union to the “soft” version foisted on the United Kingdom after World War II. It has invariably failed. No matter. According to its proponents, that’s only because “it hasn’t been done right.” These people are nothing if not remarkably slow learners.
Consider the implications. According to Marx, the proletarian revolution to come could not possibly result in the slaughter and oppression characteristic of past revolutions because, instead to the dictatorship of a minority over a majority, it would result in the dictatorship of the proletarian majority over a bourgeois minority. However, the Bolshevik Revolution did result in oppression and mass slaughter on an unprecedented scale. How to rescue Marx? We could say that the revolution wasn’t really a proletarian revolution. That would certainly have come as a shock to Lenin and his cronies. If not a proletarian revolution, what kind was it? There aren’t really many choices. Was it a bourgeois revolution? Then how is it that all the “owners of the social means of production” who were unlucky enough to remain in the country had their throats slit? Who among the major players was an “owner of the social means of production? Lenin? Trotsky? Stalin? I doubt it. If not a bourgeois revolution, could it have been a feudal revolution? Not likely in view of the fact that virtually the entire surviving Russian nobility could be found a few years later waiting tables in French restaurants. If we take Marx at his word, it must, in fact, have been a proletarian revolution, and Marx, in fact, must have been dead wrong. In one of the last things he wrote, Trotsky, probably the best and the brightest of all the old Bolsheviks, admitted as much. He had hoped until the end that Stalinism was merely a form of “bureaucratic parasitism,” and the proletariat would soon shrug it off and take charge as they should have from the start. However, just before he was murdered by one of Stalin’s assassins, he wrote,
If, however, it is conceded that the present war (World War II) will provoke not revolution but a decline of the proletariat, then there remains another alternative; the further decay of monopoly capitalism, its further fusion with the state and the replacement of democracy wherever it still remained by a totalitarian regime. The inability of the proletariat to take into its hands the leadership of society could actually lead under these conditions to the growth of a new exploiting class from the Bonapartist fascist bureaucracy. This would be, according to all indications, a regime of decline, signaling the eclipse of civilization… Then it would be necessary in retrospect to establish that in its fundamental traits the present USSR was the precursor of a new exploiting regime on an international scale… If (this) prognosis proves to be correct, then, of course, the bureaucracy will become a new exploiting class. However onerous the second perspective may be, if the world proletariat should actually prove incapable of fulfilling the mission placed upon it by the course of development, nothing else would remain except only to recognize that the socialist program, based on the internal contradictions of capitalist society, ended as a Utopia.
And so it did. Trotsky, convinced socialist that he was, saw the handwriting on the wall at last. However, Trotsky was a very smart man. Obviously, our latter day socialists aren’t quite as smart. It follows that we drop the history of Communism down Orwell’s “memory hold” at our peril. If we refuse to learn anything from the Communist experiment, we may well find them foisting another one on us before long. Those who do want to learn something about it would do well to be wary of latter day “interpretations.” With Communism, as with anything else, it’s necessary to consult the source literature yourself if you want to uncover anything resembling the truth. There is a vast amount of great material out there. Allow me to mention a few of my personal favorites.
There were actually two Russian Revolutions in 1917. In the first, which occurred in March (new style) the tsar was deposed and a provisional government established in the place of the old monarchy. Among other things it issued decrees that resulted in a fatal relaxation of discipline in the Russian armies facing the Germans and Austro-Hungarians, paving the way for the Bolshevik coup that took place later that year. Perhaps the best account of the disintegration of the armies that followed was written by a simple British nurse named Florence Farmborough in her With the Armies of the Tsar; A Nurse at the Russian Front, 1914-18. The Communists themselves certainly learned from this experience, executing thousands of their own soldiers during World War II at the least hint of insubordination. My favorite firsthand account of the revolution itself is The Russian Revolution 1917; An Eyewitness Account, by N. N. Sukhanov, a Russian socialist who played a prominent role in the Provisional Government. He described Stalin at the time as a “grey blur.” Sukhanov made the mistake of returning to the Soviet Union. He was arrested in 1937 and executed in 1940. Another good firsthand account is Political Memoirs, 1905-1917, by Pavel Miliukov. An outstanding account of the aftermath of the revolution is Cursed Days, by novelist Ivan Bunin. Good accounts by diplomats include An Ambassador’s Memoirs by French ambassador to the court of the tsar Maurice Paleologue, and British Agent by Bruce Lockhart.
When it comes to the almost incredible brutality of Communism, it’s hard to beat Solzhenitsyn’s classic The Gulag Archipelago. Other good accounts include Journey into the Whirlwind by Yevgenia Ginzburg and Back in Time by Nadezhda Joffe. Ginzburg was the wife of a high Communist official, and Joffe was the daughter of Adolph Joffe, one of the most prominent early Bolsheviks. Both were swept up in the Great Purge of the late 1930’s, and both were very lucky to survive life in the Gulag camps. Ginzburg had been “convicted” of belong to a “counterrevolutionary Trotskyist terrorist organization,” and almost miraculously escaped being shot outright. She spent the first years of her sentence in solitary confinement. In one chapter of her book she describes what happened to an Italian Communist who dared to resist her jailers:
I heard the sound of several feet, muffled cries, and a shuffling noise as though a body were being pulled along the stone floor. Then there was a shrill cry of despair; it continued for a long while on the same note, and stopped abruptly.
It was clear that someone was being dragged into a punishment cell and was offering resistance… The cry rang out again and stopped suddenly, as though the victim had been gagged… But it continued – a penetrating, scarcely human cry which seemed to come from the victim’s very entrails, to be viscous and tangible as it reverberated in the narrow space. Compared with it, the cries of a woman in labor were sweet music. They, after all, express hope as well as anguish, but here there was only a vast despair.
I felt such terror as I had not experienced since the beginning of my wanderings through this inferno. I felt that at any moment I should start screaming like my unknown neighbor, and from that it could only be a step to madness.
At that moment I heard clearly, in the midst of the wailing, the words “Communista Italiana, Communista Italiana!” So that was it! No doubt she had fled from Mussolini just as Klara, my cellmate at Butyrki, had fled from Hitler.
I heard the Italian’s door opened, and a kind of slithering sound which I could not identify. Why did it remind me of flower beds? Good God, it was a hose! So Vevers (one of her jailers) had not been joking when he had said to me: “We’ll hose you down with freezing water and then shove you in a punishment cell.”
The wails became shorter as the victim gasped for breath. Soon it was a tiny shrill sound, like a gnat’s. The hose played again; then I heard blows being struck, and the iron door was slammed to. Dead silence.
That was just a minute part of the reality of the “worker’s paradise.” Multiply it millions of times and you will begin to get some inkling of the reality of Communism under Stalin. Many of the people who wrote such accounts began as convinced Communists and remained so until the end of their days. They simply couldn’t accept the reality that the dream they had dedicated their lives to was really a nightmare. Victor Serge was another prominent Bolshevik and “Trotskyist” who left an account of his own struggle to make sense of what he saw happening all around him in his Memoirs of a Revolutionary:
Nobody was willing to see evil in the proportions it had reached. As for the idea that the bureaucratic counterrevolution had attained power, and that a new despotic State had emerged from our own hands to crush us, and reduce the country to absolute silence – nobody, nobody in our ranks was willing to admit it. From the depths of his exile in Alma-Ata Trotsky affirmed that this system was still ours, still proletarian, still Socialist, even though sick; the Party that was excommunicating, imprisoning, and beginning to murder us remained our Party, and we still owed everything to it: we must live only for it, since only through it could we serve the Revolution. We were defeated by Party patriotism: It both provoked us to rebel and turned us against ourselves.
Serge was lucky. He was imprisoned years before the Great Purge began in earnest, and was merely sentenced to internal exile in Siberia. The secret police even supplied him and a fellow exile with a bread ration. After a few years, thanks to pressure from foreign socialists, he was allowed to leave the Soviet Union. Conditions for the normal citizens of Orenburg where he spent his exile, were, if anything, worse than his, even though more than a decade had elapsed since the advent of the “worker’s paradise.” In the following he describes what happened when they received their bread ration:
I heard shouting from the street, and then a shower of vigorous knocks on the door. “Quick, Victor Lvovich, open up!” Bobrov was coming back from the bakery, with two huge four-kilo loaves of black bread on his shoulders. He was surrounded by a swarm of hungry children, hopping after the bread like sparrows, clinging on his clothes, beseeching: “A little bit, uncle, just a little bit!” They were almost naked. We threw them some morsels, over which a pitched battle promptly began. The next moment, our barefooted maidservant brought boiling water, unasked, for us to make tea. When she was alone with me for a moment, she said to me, her eyes smiling, “Give me a pound of bread and I’ll give you the signal in a minute… And mark my words, citizen, I can assure you that I don’t have the syphilis, no, not me…” Bobrov and I decided to go out only by turns, so as to keep an eye on the bread.
So much for the look of real oppression, as opposed to the somewhat less drastic versions that occupy the florid imaginations of today’s Social Justice Warriors. Speaking of SJW’s, especially of the type whose tastes run to messianic revolutionary ideologies, the demise of Communism has had an interesting effect. It has pulled the rug out from under their feet, leaving them floating in what one might describe as an ideological vacuum. Somehow writing furious diatribes against Trump on Facebook just doesn’t tickle the same itch as Communism did in its day. When it comes to fanatical worldviews, oddly enough, radical Islam is the only game in town. The SJWs can’t really fall for it hook, line and sinker the way they once did for Communism. After all, its ideology is diametrically opposed to what they’ve claimed to believe in lo these many years. The result has been the weird love affair between the radical Left and Islam that’s been such an obvious aspect of the ideological scene lately, complete with bold flirtations and coy, steamy glances from afar. Strange bedfellows indeed!
In terms of the innate, ingroup/outgroup behavior of human beings I’ve often discussed on this blog, the outgroup of the Communist ingroup was, of course, the “bourgeoisie.” If even the most tenuous connection could be made between some individual and the “bourgeoisie,” it became perfectly OK to murder and torture that individual, after the fashion of our species since time immemorial. We saw nearly identical behavior directed against the “aristocrats” after the French Revolution, and against the Jews under the Nazis. If our species learns nothing else from its experiment with Communism, it is to be hoped that we at least learn the extreme danger of continuing to uncritically indulge this aspect of our behavioral repertoire. I realize that it is very likely to be a vain hope. If anything, ingroup/outgroup identification according to ideology is intensifying and becoming increasingly dangerous. The future results are unpredictable, but are very unlikely to be benign. Let us at least hope that, under the circumstances, no new messianic secular religion appears on the scene to fill the vacuum left by Communism. We can afford to wait a few more centuries for that.